In his latest book, "Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity," John Stossel expands on his popular "Myth" segments on "20/20" and unearths truths often distorted -- or disregarded -- by the media. Below is an excerpt:
Thomas Jefferson said he'd rather live in a country with a free press and no government, than in one with a government but no press. "The only security of all is in a free press," he wrote. "It is necessary, to keep the waters pure."
I couldn't agree more. Without media to tell us about the excesses of government, the risks of life, and the wonderful new ideas that emerge constantly from every cranny in America, our lives would be narrow, and our freedom diminished. The Fourth Estate both informs and protects us. "Where the press is free, and every man able to read," said Jefferson, "all is safe."
However, thirty-six years working in the media has left me much more skeptical of its product. Reporters are good at telling us what happened today: what buildings burned down, what army invaded, the size of the hurricane that's coming. Many reporters take astonishing risks to bring us this news. We owe them thanks.
But when it comes to science and economics, and putting life's risks in perspective, the media do a dismal job.
MYTH: The media will check it out and give you the objective truth.
TRUTH: Many in the media are scientifically clueless, and will scare you to death. We don't do it on purpose. We just want to give you facts. But the people who bring us story ideas are alarmed. Then we get alarmed, and eager to rush that news to you.
We know that the scarier and more bizarre the story, the more likely it is that our bosses will give us more air time or a front-page slot. The scary story, justified or not, will get higher ratings and sell more papers. Fear sells. That's the reason for the insiders' joke about local newscasts: "If it bleeds, it leads."
Also, raising alarms makes us feel important.
If we bothered to keep digging until we found the better scientific experts, rather than the ones who send out press releases, we'd get the real story. But reporters rarely know whom to call. And if we did, many real scientists don't want to be bothered. Why get involved in a messy debate? It might upset someone in government and threaten the scientist's grant money. "I'd rather be left alone to do my work, and not have to babysit dumb reporters," one told me.
One real scientist, Dr. Bruce Ames of the University of California, Berkeley, did make the effort. He urged a skeptical reporter (me) to be more skeptical of pseudologic from pseudoscientists: "The number of storks in Europe has been going down for years, the birth rate's going down for years," Dr. Ames pointed out. "If you plot one against the other, it's a beautiful correlation. But it doesn't mean storks bring babies."
We've been swallowing the storks-bring-babies kind of logic for years. (My favorite version: I see fat people drinking diet soda; therefore diet soda must make people fat.) For instance, stories about pesticides making food carcinogenic would fill several pages of a Google search. To the scientifically illiterate, the stories are logical. After all, farmers keep using new pesticides, we consume them in the food we eat, and we keep hearing more people are getting cancer. It must be cause and effect! Get the shovel.
MYTH: Pesticide residues in food cause cancer and other diseases.